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Beyond words: supporting children using alternative forms of communication

Picture an all too familiar situation: you go on holiday to a new destination and you don’t speak the language. You want something to eat and drink, and you need to find the nearest toilet. How does this make you feel?

Adults with good communication and problem-solving skills can find ways around this - we can use gestures, draw, mime, or even use our smartphones to get our message across. Finding our way around often involves trying to pick up visual clues from our environment (for example, is there a sign for the toilet?)

Children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) often struggle with these types of situations, as they are still learning how to problem-solve, how to interpret what's going on around them, and how to get their message across. They often need to use more than spoken words to do this; they may need visual cues including gestures, signs and pictures. Together, these approaches are known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Find out more about these different approaches in I CAN’s FAQ on AAC. We will be looking at actions, gestures and signs in this blog, as well as pictures and symbols.  For more information on other forms of AAC, visit the Ace Centre website.

Actions, gestures and signs

Using gestures and signs are important and effective ways of communicating with young children (who may not have enough spoken words to express themselves yet), and children who have SLCN. Gestures, signs and actions (or mimes) can help because:

  • They give an extra clue about what we're saying, so they give the same information as a spoken word but in a more visual way.
  • Signs and gestures last longer - a spoken word disappears quickly. If you missed it, or didn't understand it, then it can be harder to work out what's going on. A sign or gesture is longer lasting, and draws a picture of what we're saying.
  • Children can benefit from seeing (and sometimes copying) gestures and actions to help them learn and practise new words. Gestures and signs can help us learn about words and build up a picture in our minds.
  • Sometimes, using gestures or signs while we speak helps us to slow down and gives a child more time to take in what we’re saying.
  • Gestures, signs or actions can help a child to get their message across if they are struggling to find the right word or if their speech is very unclear.

One of the better known and frequently used systems for signing in pre-school provisions is Makaton.

Pictures and symbols

The benefits of using pictures (these can be photographs or symbols) are:

  • They last even longer than a gesture or sign, so can be used as a visual reminder both at the time and then again later.
  • They are a more concrete way of sharing information. For example, a child may not be sure what your gesture or sign means, but if you have a photo of the object, person or activity it can be more accessible. Find out more in I CAN's factsheet.
  • Because they are more visual and concrete, pictures may be more easily understood by others.
  • You can personalise it - using pictures of objects, places and people from the child's world helps to make it meaningful to them and their families.

Some of the better known and frequently used systems are Talking Mats and PECs.

Reflecting on practice

Children with SLCN can benefit from a communication supportive environment. Some aspects to think about for your setting:

  • How do you tune into a child's communication skills? Every child is different and has a different response to the world. We need to work out how they respond, what they like and don't like and how they let us know this. How does a child communicate with you? How do they let you know that they want something? How much time do they need to respond to something?
  • What opportunities can you create for children to join in? You could help them to join in using actions or signs during songs - you may need to make the actions with them at first by holding their hands.
  • How do you use visual support in your setting? Would some children benefit from having more photos or symbols in the environment?

There is much more to communication than the words we hear and say. We can support children's language and communication needs by incorporating these approaches into our practice, and making the most of communication opportunities throughout the day.

About the Author

Jon Gilmartin is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Speech and Language Advisor for I CAN, he delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. He also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. You can contact Jon directly on I CAN’s Enquiry Service by calling 0207 843 2544 or sending an email to 

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